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Backyard Chicken Troubleshooting

Unlike illnesses that are caused by diseases, your chickens may develop other problems, behaviors or conditions for you to deal with.

Egg Eating

That means the chickens, not you. Sometimes chickens can start to peck at their own eggs, eventually cracking them. They can then even go on to eat the entire thing, shells and all. It's one of the most frustrating behavior issues you are likely to encounter but it must be dealt with immediately or you will not only lose eggs to that one chicken but she can pass the habit on to your whole flock.

It can be caused by various things, but the most common is boredom. Your chickens may need a larger pen, or a change of scenery. Using a portable chicken tractor can help though you'll have to get more creative with a permanent one. Allowing them access to a variety of healthy treats, particularly those that would force them to peck and scratch can be a good activity. Hang a large piece of fruit, or chunks of vegetables in their pen so they can keep occupied with it without the food getting soiled in the bedding. If you can let them out of their pen entirely, that would also help keep their minds busy.

Once you see a hen exhibiting egg eating, it can be a hard habit to break. Adding new stimulation may not cure a hen of her egg-eating once it sets in. Some farmers have gotten some success by planting golf balls in the nesting boxes, and taking extra effort to remove the real eggs as soon as they are laid. Eventually, the chickens will start to associate the "white round things" as something inedible.

If you cannot cure your hen of this, you may have to cull her out of the flock to prevent the habit from spreading.

Pecking Each Other

While it may be traumatic for you to see your lovely chickens pecking away at each other, a little bit of this is normal and should not be prevented. It means the chickens are establishing their own little society structure and deciding who's in charge. This is where the term "pecking order" comes from. You'll notice it most often when new chickens are added to a flock. Roosters are more aggressive than hens and can be more likely to peck the other birds though it's not always the case.

This kind of behavior is closely tied to confinement and boredom, just like the egg eating. Giving your chickens lots of room to roam around and offer them diversions can help them stay happy. If you are finding some birds are losing feathers and getting pecked to the point of injury, it can be almost impossible to find out the culprits unless you watch your chickens often through the day. You may have to remove the victim for a time, until they have healed up. The problem may solve itself at that point since the habit of pecking that one bird will have been broken.

Broody Hens

A hen that has "gone broody" has shifted into motherhood mode and will sit on her eggs with great dedication. This is not a problem if you have a rooster about, and are trying to hatch fertilized eggs. In fact, this is a great trait to have when this is your goal. Otherwise, it's a pain. Collecting eggs is much more difficult with a hen sitting on them. The bigger problem is that once the broodiness sets in, a hen won't lay any more eggs until the mood has passed. This can put a damper on your egg production, so it's worth knowing about.

Unfertilized eggs cannot be left under a hen, or they will quickly spoil and risk fouling your coop. So even if you have to fight with your chickens, the eggs have to be taken. Of course, that won't change your hen's behavior. A broody hen can stay that way for weeks, sitting on any eggs she will find and not doing any laying of her own.

You will have to get her mind off eggs which can be a challenge. One treatment is a dunking or two in cold water, though that can be a negative experience for everyone one involved. A few ice cubes in the nest is another way of shocking her out of her broody habit. These can be messy ideas that don't always work. A simpler way is to just keep your broody hen away from the nest boxes. Shut her in a separate pen, or any other secure area away from the rest of the chickens. Without a safe place to "nest", the instinct will quickly fade.

Some breeds are prone to frequent bouts of this habit, such as the Silkie, Wyandotte and Orpingtons. On the other hand, breeds like the Leghorn will seldom set on their eggs.

Frozen Combs

This is only a problem for those keeping chickens in regions with cold winters, so southern farmers shouldn't need to worry. The problem is that temperatures below freezing can cause frostbite to the unfeathered parts of your chickens, which usually means the combs and wattles around their face.

Chicken breeds with large combs are the most susceptible, but smaller "rose" combs are less likely to be harmed by the cold. Minorcas and Leghorns will need to be watched, for example.

Frost-bitten combs will turn black and eventually the dead tissue will break away, causing open wounds and bleeding. In roosters, you can actually find that after their combs have been damaged, they will be much less fertile in coming years. It's worth taking care of your chickens to prevent any frost bite.

You can keep their coop above freezing (especially at night) with a well-protected heat lamp or red light bulb. A regular bulb will do in a pinch, but having a lit coop all night long will mess with your hens behavior and laying abilities. They need darkness to sleep. If it is impractical to run electricity to your hen house, then you will need to protect your chickens directly. A good coating of petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) will keep your chickens' tender combs and wattles from freezing. You'll likely have to do this every night for decent protection.

Pasted Vents

This is one condition that is almost solely found in chicks, so it may not apply to your flock if you have only mature birds. Very young chicks tend to have runny droppings as their bodies get adjusted to eating solid food after hatching. This can get clogged up in their new feathers to the extent that their vents are blocked. A blocked vent means that no more waste can be passed, and your chick will quickly die.

Keep a close eye on your chicks, and give them an occasional wipe if they have soiled backsides. If the droppings have dried, you'll need to use some warm water to clean them up.

This can happen with older chickens, but only when they are either suffering from diarrhea or living in very dirty and damp surroundings. While there is little you can do to prevent it with chicks, proper care can keep it from happening with mature chickens.

Impacted Crop

This can be a serious problem related more to your chicken's diet than a disease. First off, the chicken's crop is a sack inside of its throat that is part of its digestive system. It fills up as the chicken eats, and is slowly emptied as it digests. It's normal to see a large bulge in the front of your chicken when the crop is full. That's not necessarily a problem. But if it fills with really tough food, it can get blocked and become impacted. Your chicken will eventually be unable to eat, and will die.

Feeding your chickens a good commercial chicken food along with vegetables and fruits will usually prevent this from ever happening in your flock. But like with any problem, it does show itself even with good treatment.

You can tell a chicken as an impacted crop if their front is quite swollen and it's hard to the touch. Kind of like she swallowed a golf ball or something. A chicken with this problem may pull at her feathers from the discomfort, and will usually stop eating. At this point, you should take her to a livestock vet if you have one nearby.

There are some steps you can take on your own if you wish. The easiest is to give your chicken a few tablespoons of mineral oil to help loosen up the impaction. You'll need a dropper or syringe, and you have to put it right down her throat. Use your fingers to help "break up" the lump without being too rough. Do this daily for a few days and it may be enough to solve the problem.

If not, you can do some surgery yourself. This should only be attempted when there is no other course of action and you don't have any veterinarians nearby that specialize in livestock or poultry. The crop should be right under the skin, so a simple incision with a clean blade should suffice to give you access to the problem. With fingers or blunt-tipped tweezers, pull out the packed material to empty out the crop.

Suture the crop closed, and then also the skin. Keep it as clean as possible while your chicken heals.

Spraddle Legs

One last potential problem for chickens is unique to chicks and will not come into play in a mature flock. Spraddle legs happen when a newborn chick is kept on too smooth a surface, and their legs slide out to the sides because it don't know how to hold itself up properly. After a few days of this, the legs will become permanently deformed unless you step in to correct it.

Ideally, it will never happen if you keep your young chicks on a rougher surface, like paper towels, cloth or even wood. Smooth metal, plastic or vinyl are all bad ideas. Newspaper is acceptable but can become slippery when even slightly wet.

Your chick will sort of be plopped on its stomach, with legs stuck out to the sides. If you catch it soon enough, it can be corrected without that much difficulty. You need to wrap something flexible around each leg, and pull them in towards each other so they are held under the chick properly. That does not mean you actually tie the legs together. They need to be about an inch apart, just as though the chick was standing naturally.

You can use bandaids or strips of gauze, and it will need to stay in place for about 2 weeks to help correct the problem.

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